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— A loin of lamb is simpler but no less compelling as literal food for thought. Served rare to our order, the lamb was crusted with a tapenade of herbs and crushed black olives, lending dark complexity to a simple grilled protein. It came with fresh Bloomsdale spinach and a "cassoulet" of flageolet beans studded with bits of braised lamb shank and spicy Tunisian-style merguez (lamb sausage). At ordering, I feared the cassoulet might be splotted all over the plate; instead, it is contained in a four-inch porcelain quiche dish, topped with toasted bread crumbs. While the loin tastes young and clean, the pieces mingling with the moist beans are fattier and more mature-tasting. The combination forms a multifaceted culinary portrait of a young sheep.

The Autumn Vegetable Tasting is too tempting to pass up -- a virtual Horn of Plenty. Four small square plates arrive on a square charger. One square holds two plump, thin-skinned ravioli filled with butternut squash and Parmesan, garnished with butter-browned chopped hazelnuts and a crisp, fried leaf of fresh sage. (Do nibble the sage between pasta bites; it's not there just for looks.) In another square sits pumpkin "risotto," made not of rice but of pastina pasta, which is lighter in texture, the size and shape of barley. It's flecked with fine-minced parsley and arugula, as well as diced pumpkin, and bathed in a savory broth of butternut squash, tomato, and basil. Baby brussels sprouts gain interest from a Parmesan cream sauce and a scattering of capers -- a balance of earthy, smooth, and sharp flavors. Last is Tuscan (lacinato) kale, which we found a little leathery and bitter. We supplemented this tasting plate with a side dish of tender sautéed spinach cooked with garlic, with a lemon wedge to season it yourself.

As we were finishing our entrées, I overheard a gent in a business suit at a nearby table demanding customized accompaniments to his filet mignon. "I don't want all that fancy stuff, I just want mashed potatoes," he was saying. "Well, we have a side dish of buttermilk-mashed Yukon golds," said the waiter, pointing to the menu listing. "Are those potatoes?" asked the Suit. I felt a little sorry for the chef, whose art would go unappreciated, but sorrier for the man.

The aptly named sommelier, Lisa Redwine (who doubles as room manager), is in charge of the wines and beer. The list is long and interesting, sidestepping all the tedious top-shelf supermarket bottlings you see at so many Cal-cuisine restaurants. The range runs from glasses to slips to bottles to magnums. Bottles run steep, but when you order by the glass, the wine arrives in a small carafe that's worth two normal pours, enough to see you easily through one course and into the next. When we had to wait at the bar for a table one evening (we hadn't reserved), I sipped the house Chardonnay, which comes from a small Santa Barbara vineyard called McManus. Soft, fruity, but with oaky backbone, it's a wine I'd love to have in my fridge.

Renowned German-born dessert chef Rudi Weider makes the pastries for the entire hotel. Among other impressive credits, he was pastry chef for the Reagan White House. Weider specializes in the exacting and rather frou-frou desserts that I imagine Nancy Reagan would favor for state dinners. The dessert sampler for two ($18) is probably the best way to partake of his craft, a panorama that includes rich, custardy vanilla bean crème brulée; a rather heavy, mousse-like espresso panna cotta; a simple trifle of mixed berries and whipped cream in a narrow parfait glass; a white peach financier cake with whipped cream subtly sprinkled with pepper, and -- best of all, to my tastes -- an airy passionfruit mousse cake. If you like Valrhona chocolate (which even as semi-sweet tastes like milk chocolate), it's the star of a molten chocolate cake. The popular favorite is bananas Foster, cooked at tableside with sparks shooting from the flambéed liqueurs. The coffee (local brand Café Moto) is good. With some sips of red wine left, I enjoyed a cheese plate -- you have a choice of over a dozen cheeses, served solo, or as a trio or a quintet. Just say "bing" when you hear one that sounds good to you, until you reach the number you want. The plate includes several complimentary fruity nibbles.

In its new incarnation, Molly's is a hidden San Diego treasure. Let's take it back from the conventioneers and make it our own.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Molly's is a long-standing restaurant, but until this year it was a mess. Chefs changed almost annually, turning out old-fashioned Continental hotel-food menus, until Steve Pagano, restaurant manager of Arterra at the Carmel Valley Marriott, was promoted to general manager of the Marriott Marina. A Northern California foodie, Pagano cast an eye on Molly's and decided it needed major changes -- starting with a serious chef and a house manager, so it could fulfill its role as the "fine-dining restaurant" of the huge hotel. Last April, he hired Brian Sinnott as Molly's chef and a few weeks later brought in Lisa Redwine (another veteran of San Francisco restaurants) to serve as sommelier and restaurant manager.

"I grew up in New Jersey," says Brian, now aged 34, "and my mother's family was Italian, so I've always been around good food. Starting at age 14, I worked at a grocery, dealing with produce, and developed my passion for food, starting with fresh produce, and that's what I try to highlight on my menu. When I change the menu, what drives it is the changing seasonal produce. Then I go down to fish, then meats.

"I majored in sociology in college, but during grad school in criminology in D.C., I said, 'Grad school isn't for me, I just want to keep on cooking.'" He moved to San Francisco in '97 to work in "the food capital of America" and did stints at Stars (where Jeremiah Towers was still marginally involved); Acquarella, under chef Suzette Gresham, who mentored him; and MC Square, under Japanese chef Yoshi Kohima. After the dot-com crash killed that restaurant and many others, he worked at small inns in the Sonoma County wine country (where he picked up on the hand-crafted local cheeses) and returned to the city for a longer gig at downtown Scalia's, where he learned to make pasta from scratch.

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